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Design, Culture, and the Human Spirit



Retail designers must respond to the conditions of the day by simplifying the retail experience


Design is a reflection of our collective experiences; it’s a representation of the challenges and triumphs of the human condition. While some will argue that design informs culture, it should be noted that inspiration for creative design is everywhere; if you can’t find it, look again.


Design is a response to the ever-changing nuances of life. As such, design is not only charged with the documentation of the times, but also with providing critical commentary on the events of the day. In addition, responsive design thinking should provide solutions for the ever-increasing challenges of modern-day life.


In considering the impact and importance of design, I’m reminded of Raymond Loewy who designed everything from lipstick to locomotives. While many are unfamiliar with the name, Loewy touches our lives every day. His diverse portfolio includes many of the products, objects, signs, and symbols of everyday life, including, but certainly not limited to, the Shell, Exxon, TWA, and United States Postal Service logos; the Greyhound bus; Coca-Cola vending machines and bottle; the Lucky Strike cigarette package; Coldspot refrigerators and the Studebaker Avanti automobile. Additionally, Loewy redesigned the Air Force One livery. Convinced that a remodeled jetliner could become a standard bearer of the presidency, Loewy collaborated with President Kennedy to develop an updated, elegant color palette that is still in use today.


Before his illustrious career as an industrial designer, the Parisian-born Loewy had a brief stint in the retail design world as a window designer for large department stores such as Macy’s, Saks Fifth Avenue and Wanamaker’s. (He also worked as a fashion illustrator for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.) While at Macy’s, a young Raymond Loewy took a single mannequin, dressed her in an evening gown, placed her in the window with nothing else, and focused two spotlights on her. Loewy quit the next day before Macy’s could fire him, knowing full well that the merchants of the day instinctively pushed everything they owned into the show windows. Loewy knew that his window creation wasn’t necessarily about selling an evening gown that day, but rather, about projecting the Macy’s brand image to passersby on the street. To all who would listen, Loewy famously said, “Simplicity is the deciding factor in the aesthetic equation.”


The concept of simplicity has been championed by many of the great thinkers and visionaries in the art and design community. Mies van der Rohe told us, “Less is more,” while Constantin Brancusi penned the words that every designer should hold near and dear to their heart, “Simplicity is complexity resolved.” And while our world grows increasingly complex, it’s the successful retail designer who will simplify our lives by creating order out of chaos.


Today we are faced with unimaginable conditions and circumstances that have dramatically altered our lives. As retailers search for solutions and direction, customers are searching for safety and convenience in an increasingly chaotic world. Given the conditions of the day and the complexities of retail, designers would be well served to consider the perspectives of Loewy, Mies Van der Rohe and Brancusi.


In Brancusi’s iconic sculpture, Bird in Space, on permanent exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the artist communicates the concept of a bird with a simple gesture; a single mellifluous line capturing the contours and spirit of our high flying friends. A bird is naturally a complex entity with wings, feathers, beaks and claws. In depicting the nuances of a bird, Brancusi made an enduring statement and emotional connection through the art of simplification. Much like a bird, it can be argued that a store is also a complex entity, with styles, sizes, silhouettes, and myriad sources of information and stimulation.


While simplifying the retail process is a must, it shouldn’t come at the expense of aesthetics. With the unrelenting march of time, politics, and bureaucracy, stores that once resembled palaces and cathedrals, are beginning to look more like factories. When designing an environment, whether brick-and-mortar or virtual, particularly in the face of change and challenge, retailers must recognize the motivational, aspirational, and persuasive power of aesthetics.


As Loewy’s illustrious career unfolded, he underscored the importance of design by illustrating the practical rewards of form and function in his book titled Industrial Design. The nature and aesthetic quality of a building affects its functionality and the ultimate experience of those engaging in the space. The beauty, grace, and elegance of physical form and mass, as well as that of augmented reality and cyberspace, greatly impacts the shopping experience and community relationships.


In his book, Loewy wrote, “Success finally came when we were able to convince some creative people that good appearance was a salable commodity, that it often cut costs, enhanced a product’s prestige, raised corporate profits, and benefited the customer.” As we wade through the muddy waters left in the wake of the pandemic, benefiting the customer becomes the most vital factor in the retail equation.


Effective design begins with an awareness of the times and an understanding of the human spirit; form and function must adapt to the conditions of the day. Loewy’s vision is as relevant today as it was when he penned his thoughts on simplicity. While customers search for comfort and safety in their shopping experience, whether brick and mortar or digital, designers should focus on simplifying the process and simplifying the aesthetic. Retail design must respond to the circumstances, flash points, triggers, and events that impact, and in fact, define our culture.


This thought piece was originally shared in July 2022.
 

Revisiting This Thought

AN UPDATE FROM THE AUTHOR


If one were to hold a mirror to the face of fashion, the reflected image would be us. Fashion, much like art, is a bookmark of our times. It should be noted that the relationship between fashion and art has long been intertwined. Italian-born surrealist fashion designer, Elsa Schiaparelli said, “Art is the way we live.” With an understanding of Schiaparelli’s viewpoint, the question must be asked: Does art have a place in the retail environment?


Art has long graced the halls of the most venerable retail establishments. Industry leaders from Dorothy Shaver and Stanley Marcus, to visual merchandising icons including Gene Moore and Raymond Mastrobuoni, have consistently fostered a commingling of fashion and fine art. These retail visionaries, along with other impassioned influencers, brought art to the retail stage in order to elevate the customer experience. Showcasing the creative spirit, in any form or fashion, is a vital component of a successful retail model.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

ERIC FEIGENBAUM, MEDIA RDI


Eric Feigenbaum, Media RDI

Eric Feigenbaum is a recognized leader in the visual merchandising and store design industries with both domestic and international design experience. His career includes working in four different sectors of the industry. As a retailer, he served as Corporate Director of Visual Merchandising for Stern’s Department Store, a Division of Federated Department Stores, for fourteen years. In that capacity, he played a key role in the design and development of seven new stores and ten major renovations. He also served as the chair of Federated’s Visual Directors’ Team.

On the design side, he was the Director of Visual Merchandising for WalkerGroup/CNI, an architectural design consultancy located in New York City, specializing in retail design worldwide. In that role, he helped bring visual merchandising to Asia and South America and was involved in the design of stores in South Korea, Japan, Chile, and Peru. He was also a key contributor in the application of WalkerGroup’s proprietary service Envirobranding®, which promotes the physical store environment as an integral component of a company’s projected brand image.

In the educational sector, he was the Chair of the Visual Merchandising Department at LIM College in New York City from 2000 to 2015, where he created the first four-year BBA degree program in visual merchandising, and the first masters degree program in visual merchandising. A pioneer in advocating an eco-friendly approach to visual merchandising and store design, Feigenbaum is responsible for conceiving and designing the state-of-the-art LIM College Green Lab – a sustainable materials lab and research center. Additionally, he was an adjunct professor of Store Design at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

Currently, he is the president and director of creative services for his own retail design company, Embrace Design. With many responsibilities, he also works in the editorial sector as the Editorial Advisor/New York Editor of VMSD Magazine, and the Director of Workshops for WindowsWear.

Feigenbaum has been the recipient of numerous prestigious industry awards. In 2012, he was awarded the industry’s highest honor, the coveted Markopoulos Award. Professor Feigenbaum has lectured all over the world on visual merchandising and store design including presentations at the World Retail Congress and the National Retail Federation as well as presentations in Seoul and Ulsan South Korea; Fukuoka, Japan; Santiago, Chile; Hong Kong; Sydney and Melbourne, Australia; Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Curitiba, Brazil; Dusseldorf, Germany; Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, Canada; Monterrey, Guadalajara, and Mexico City, Mexico; Madrid, Spain; Lima, Peru; Bogota and Medellin, Colombia; and Milan and Ancona, Italy.

Feigenbaum is also a founding member of PAVE Global (previously known as, A Partnership for Planning and Visual Education) and is regarded as one of the top experts and visionaries in the Visual Merchandising and store design industries.


 



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